IT WAS nine years ago that Jonas Bjorkman got a little taste of what Andy Murray will experience today. Proudly standing in his first Wimbledon semi-final (and only the second grand slam semi-final of his career), he faced Roger Federer. Just 77 minutes later, he was on his way home having won just four games.
Today, Bjorkman is at Murray’s elbow, offering advice and encouragement as the Scot attempts to beat Federer and reach his third final in SW19. Murray is a far better player than the affable Swede ever was – in singles, at least – so Bjorkman is not about to deconstruct the Scot’s game and give him point by point guidance on how to beat Federer, but he is the trusted sounding board.
It is Bjorkman who has, together with Amelie Mauresmo, encouraged Murray to play with more variety, to be more aggressive on his returns and to try and stamp his authority on the opposition from the first ball. But his blow-by-blow recollections of playing Federer are, he thinks, probably not going to help much.
“I think we shouldn’t speak about that match at all,” he said with a wry laugh. “But this is completely different. When Andy and Roger are playing they always have close matches. It’s two giants of the game and completely different to the match I played.
“It’s hard to go in on tactical things, but I think both guys have played well this year. They both came off winning at Halle and Queen’s, so they are obviously playing with a lot of confidence. I think they know each other extremely well, having played each other so many times so I think it’s going to be up to the one who can perform the best on the day out there tomorrow.”
The nuts and bolts of the match are simple: they have played 23 times with Federer leading the head-to-head 12-11. Since their first match back in 2005 in the Bangkok Open final, the first final of Murray’s career, the Scot has been a thorn in Federer’s side. The Swiss won that day but Murray gained revenge a year later in Cincinnati and from that day on and for the next eight years, Federer never had a winning record over the world No.3. This was something of a blot on the record of the living legend in his pomp.
It’s more for Andy Murray to figure things out than Roger FedererMats Wilander
It is only since Murray’s back surgery that Federer has managed to pull ahead in their rivalry and he has won all three of their encounters in the last 18 months. But this is the first time since Murray’s back operation at the end of 2013 that Federer has faced a fully fit and fully prepared opponent. This is where it gets interesting again.
When they last met, at the O2 Arena in the ATP World Tour Finals, Federer crushed his younger rival. It was a bruising and brutal encounter and it left Murray’s followers shell-shocked. Their man won just one game. But since then, the Scot has regrouped, recharged and is now playing some of the best tennis of his life.
He has come through the draw easily enough, surviving a range of tests of which the most difficult was the 6ft 11ins serving machine that is Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round. That required patience, total concentration – each set would hinge on just a point or two – and superb shot-making.
Bjorkman, unsurprisingly, was keeping his cards close to his chest on the eve of the semi-final, but he was clearly pleased with Murray’s progress. Even the niggling shoulder issues that the Scot endured over the weekend seem to be clearing up nicely.
“If you go through Karlovic on grass with the form he had, that is a great test,” Bjorkman said. “You know it is going to be one or two points every set. I think that match was the perfect lead-in to upcoming matches where you need to step up even more. I think it has been good – it hasn’t been easy. He has really had to work his way through.”
For all the facts and figures, the key stat is that on grass and at Wimbledon, Murray and Federer are level pegging. Federer won the 2012 Wimbledon final and then a few weeks later, Murray won Olympic gold on the same court. Coming into today’s match, both men are on top of their form, both are brimming with confidence and no one, it seems, can predict the outcome.
Mats Wilander, as shrewd a judge of tennis form as there is, has known Bjorkman since he was a boy. They come from the same town in Sweden and trained at the same club – and as soon as he heard that Murray had appointed his old mate, Wilander’s eyes lit up. He knew what Bjorkman would bring to the party (getting the Scot to attack with his backhand and his returns) and he cannot wait to see how that matches up against Federer.
“It’s more for Andy Murray to figure things out than Roger Federer,” Wilander said. “It’s simpler for Federer to play on grass. He’s going to play the way he plays. Whereas Andy has all these options: to play aggressive, to play defence and sometimes being a little bit too passive and having to force himself to be more aggressive. For Federer, that’s not an issue.
“Andy needs to pick all of them! He needs to be aggressive when Federer starts playing well because otherwise Federer is going to blow him off the court. Federer blows everyone off the court for 20 minutes here and there. Andy needs to stop those streaks. And when Federer gets a bit passive, it’s important for Murray not to be overly aggressive and start missing, which would let Federer get away with being passive.
“It will be a telling tale about where Federer’s mind is. Does he believe he can win a grand slam at this moment? This is the most excited I have been for a match between the two of them, ever, in terms of their rivalry.”
Finely balanced and with a ticket to the Wimbledon final at stake, all that can be predicted with any certainty if that the match will take longer than 77 minutes and the winner will concede more than the four games Bjorkman prised from Federer’s grasp all those years ago.